In this era of fringe conspiracy theories and ‘alternative facts’, digital media literacy has never been more important, writes ED COPER.
A curious thing happened recently in the world of research into misinformation. Whereas convention had always said that older generations were most susceptible to online misinformation, researchers found that COVID-related misinformation was duping younger people at a greater rate.
Why? For older generations, who grew up in a pre-internet and pre-social media world, information was to be trusted. These generations grew up in a world where information passed through a series of gatekeepers, fact-checkers and editors before it reached its audience. They were ill-prepared for an avalanche of information that looked like news but was, in reality, fake.
For younger generations, however, there was a different problem. They grew up in a world where information was democratised. Anyone with a phone could whip up fake news in a heartbeat, everyone was a content creator (not just the big media companies), and everyone had their own broadcasting megaphone (social media). So, these generations learned instead to distrust information. Just because you read it, doesn’t mean it’s true.
Unfortunately, that distrust, it appears, also applied to life-saving health information. Where scepticism abounds, it is harder to ensure scientific information is viewed differently from junk, and to build trust in the institutions that give us that information. Once deliberate COVID vaccine disinformation campaigns began spreading around the internet, young people fell for them while the much more health-literate older generations didn’t.
In this new epoch, disinformation is a mere symptom of larger forces at work, including an erosion of trust and a fragmentation of realities.
A new era: the Disinformation Age
Part of the problem when it comes to misinformation and disinformation (deliberate misinformation) is that the solutions we have come up with don’t really work. This is because we have moved into an entirely new era, which I call ‘the Disinformation Age’ – one where falsehoods have an upper hand over truth.
In this new epoch, disinformation is a mere symptom of larger forces at work, including an erosion of trust and a fragmentation of realities. We no longer communicate or gather in a shared town square; as a consequence, we are losing our common points of reference. We have no shared baseline of information. We are rediscovering an ancient era of hostile tribes, with frighteningly modern means of information warfare, all with a callous disregard for common purpose and progress.
All the things you see around you at the moment – people storming the US Capitol, or blockading Parliament House in Canberra, crazy conspiracy theories about the pandemic, people refusing to get vaccinated, or thinking the Earth is flat – these are all just symptoms of this much larger problem: that we do not have the skills to navigate information in this new era.
The internet gave us access to a great volume of information, and then social media platforms designed algorithms to decide for us what we should see. This has had unintended consequences. We no longer get our news from trusted sources, and it pushes us into bubbles where we only hear from people who agree with us (no matter how wrong we are).
At its most extreme, we have just witnessed the recent election of Ferdinand Marcos Junior in the Philippines fuelled by a decades-long disinformation campaign using TikTok videos and a network of online trolls to rewrite history for a generation too young to remember the spectacular greed, corruption and brutality of his dictator father, former president Ferdinand Marcos, who placed the country under a state martial law for 14 years until he was ousted in 1986.
Solving this disinfodemic places an extreme importance on one group: educators.
Only by teaching people the skills to live truthfully in a world that favours falseness, will we restore some of the things disinformation has cost us: trust in our institutions, public health information, science, and civility. In a democracy, it is essential for people to have truthful information; to know what is going on around them and make sense of it.
When I was at high school, ‘media literacy’ would have meant the ability to distinguish between a TV and a newspaper. Now, it demands a complex sociological understanding of networked engagement and civic relationships.
Digital media literacy
Digital media literacy is not simply about teaching someone how to spot a fake headline from a real one. It is a core component of how we navigate life, relationships, news, and more: how we understand the world and each other.
We have been thrust into a new era where opinion is manipulated, fear and division is inflamed, and reality is distorted, by the means and manner in which we receive information. Digital media literacy is about teaching people to operate truthfully, safely and effectively within that context. It is about retooling our abilities to understand the world around us.
Digital media literacy skills are what allow us to navigate this new information ecosystem. They enable us to function in a new environment, which for the first time has an asymmetry between age and experience. Knowledge is no longer passed down linearly. At both ends of the age spectrum, there’s a dire need to build these competencies.
They are emotional skills as much as they are motor skills; as much social as they are computational. When I was at high school, ‘media literacy’ would have meant the ability to distinguish between a TV and a newspaper. Now, it demands a complex sociological understanding of networked engagement and civic relationships. Nonetheless, they are core skills we must add to our curriculum, like sin, cos and tan.
Recent studies have reinforced that the teaching of these skills builds resistance to disinformation. A generational shift in understanding will lay a different foundation for our digital engagement in the future. In the medium and long term, an embrace of civics-focused digital media literacy programs at an early age will create resilient digital communities who are trained in the art of common purpose and progress through the harnessing of this new information ecosystem, rather than being victims at the whim of its worst realisations.
This is much deeper than a version of ‘media literacy’ that teaches to discern fake from real – that approach assumes the blame lies with an individual for being uninformed enough to be misled. A civics-focused media literacy is about making sure we understand the ecosystem we inhabit, and that we grasp our digital rights and responsibilities and how they can be manipulated by emotional triggers.
The first comprehensive survey of Australian adults’ media literacy wasn’t completed until 2021. It revealed a media literacy divide between regional Australia, low-income and low-education levels. More promisingly, there was overwhelming support to do something about it: 81% of people thought children should receive media literacy education in school.
Fighting fake news
There is another enormous benefit to teaching digital media literacy skills: studies have shown just by talking about and educating people about misinformation in general, those people are subsequently much less susceptible to misinformation.
Researchers created an online game where the goal was to gain as many followers as possible by deploying common disinformation techniques. Everyone who plays it, and so learns about these techniques, is much less likely to believe and share fake news afterwards.
Another study told people about tobacco disinformation denying the link between smoking and cancer in the 1950s and 60s, and then showed the same people climate change disinformation. They could all spot it as fake, as they recognised the same techniques.
This is what we call inoculation. It is the most effective way to address the issue: get to people first with the truth – and warn them about disinformation before it hits. Instead of debunking, it is much more effective to prebunk.
But what can we do after someone is exposed to dangerous false information?
This is where it gets much more difficult. You’ll find a much more comprehensive account of this and links to more resources at factsandotherlies.com/resources, but there are a few key things to keep in mind.
Simply showing corrective information is not enough. We need to teach students how to frame their arguments in terms of shared values, beginning with areas of common ground. Too often we jump straight to the part where we disagree. Someone who is anti-vaxxer may be so out of a genuine concern for health, even if their conclusion is misplaced. Start there.
We also need to revive the lost art of private conversations. Everything on social media is performative. We want to be loud and right. In a private conversation, we want to find consensus.
Another way we need to address misinformation is not amplify the thing we are trying to debunk. Whenever mentioning a myth, for example, put it in a ‘fact sandwich’ – surround it with the truth on both sides and never leave it hanging without context.
Finally, we need to teach students how to tell better stories. Disinformation isn’t effective because it is false; it’s often effective because it’s a great yarn. Conspiracy theories are wildly entertaining, whereas the truth is usually mundane. Give students the skills to make reality engaging.
Media literacy skills will give the next generation a framework to deal with the ongoing crisis of disinformation in a way that current generations lack. We have been applying a 20th-century understanding to a 21st-century problem. As educators, you have an opportunity to make the next generation far more savvy.